Cherries galore and much more

Peter White visited Godshill to meet Stuart Pierce, a man who used to try to make a living in pig farming, but has now discovered a far more fruitful way of bringing home the bacon.

For the past four years Stuart Pierce has quietly gone about his business of supplying the Island with a plentiful supply of cherries. Stuart took over the Godshill Cherry Orchard with business partner Rob Medway because he could no longer make money in his former job as a pig farmer.

Now, like many of his cherry-laden trees, Stuart is about to branch out even further. He has undertaken a project he hopes will revolutionise the availability of fresh fruit across the Island.

He has linked up with two other Island fruit-growing families to form a ‘fruit group’ that will see a host of different fruits for sale – strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, nectarines, plums and peaches, as well as cherries.

The main outlet will be the Farmer Jack’s Shop at the Arreton Barns complex. Stuart said: “It will expand the range through the farm shop. The Brown family, who farm through the Arreton Valley, are partners, and have developed a fruit-based shop. They are big into strawberries, while the Bevas family from Apse Heath grow raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries.

“With the combination of the three we will have most of the fruit covered for the whole of the Island. Apart from Farmer Jack’s we have other outlets around the island. Although we like to sell direct to the public, some of our produce is also sold through the Co-op chain.”

There is even more good news from Stuart, who took over the eight-acre cherry site when he realised the foreign competition in the pig market was squeezing him so tightly that he was working virtually every minute of every day for very little financial reward. Now the future is looking much rosier, as he explained while walking through his neat rows of cherry trees, there will soon be major new additions to his crop.

He revealed: “We are trialling nectarines for a company that have been breeding them in the south of France. The winter here is not a problem, but there are concerns if we happen to get a late spring frost. Peaches and nectarines blossom earlier than cherries, so with a sharp air frost we could lose the whole lot.

“So these nectarines have been bred in France with a view to bringing them here, because there is a tremendous demand for fruit that is grown in the United Kingdom. Naturally fruit is a lot fresher if it has travelled only a few miles, rather than being on a lorry for three or four days.”

So Stuart is currently undertaking the research work to see how nectarines cope with the Isle of Wight climate, with the outcome likely to bear even more fruit. But as this Godshill fruit grower explained, it is very much a top secret project for the time being. He could only say: “We are doing the research work, but it’s so secret I don’t even have a name for the trees, only a number for each one.”

On another secret site on the Island, Stuart has sown the seeds for what will make him the country’s biggest apricot supplier. He continued: “We have just planted an apricot orchard with 3,000 trees with a further 3,000 planned for next year.

“We are now officially the biggest apricot growers in the UK – not producers yet because they have only just gone in. We will have enough to supply the island next year, then after that we should have a phenomenal amount – so many in fact that they will be going off the island. We have a partner from a company that had been looking for somewhere to grow apricots in southern England.”

But for the time being Stuart and his seasonal workers are picking cherries galore – 12 different varieties that will become available in stages over the next few weeks. He smiled: “I didn’t have a clue about growing cherries, but 90 per cent of it is organisation and doing things at the right time. Cherries need to be picked quickly and put into the cold store, so we need a lot of pickers. “We pick in the evening, put them in the cold room, and then they are sold the following day, so most of the cherries are sold less than 24 hours after being picked.”

It’s a carefully organised procedure that continues for about seven weeks – from the middle of June until the beginning of August. But with new varieties on the horizon, the time span could be extended by a further couple of weeks in the foreseeable future, with up to half a ton of cherries a day being picked and stored ready for distribution.

Stuart continued: “This has been a particularly good year for the cherries. A lot of people may think a harsh winter would harm them but that’s not the case – in fact quite the reverse. Because we had a severe winter it sent the trees into a rest period, which was good for them. They literally stopped growing and had a bit of a breather. Then as it began to get warmer the blossom came and went very quickly, and that has resulted in a big crop.

“It can be as cold as it likes in winter, but if we get an air frost in April when the blossom is out we could lose maybe 50 or 60 per cent. And the one thing we don’t want when we start picking is rain. That can cause a split cherry, which no one wants, and it causes an immense amount of problems. They are useless because within 24 hours you have wasps and things growing on it, so a split cherry is no use, and people won’t buy them.”

Stuart’s constant endeavours clearly prove he is not one for standing still and just letting nature take its course. Experiments are ongoing as he explained: “We are going to cover cherries with a rain shade to guarantee the crop. We have the technique of growing; now we have to make sure we can pick the crop every year.

“We have also recently introduced a system that was started in the United States to grow the trunks of the trees flat, just above ground level. This encourages the branches to grow upwards. They have only been planted this year, but hopefully in 12 months time we will have a ‘wall of cherries’ This will allow us to grow more cherries in one particular area and it will also provide easier picking and more light penetration.

Now, after a cold winter and a frost-free spring, work at Godshill Cherry Orchard has begun in earnest, so no wonder Stuart will be keeping a keen eye on the weather forecast over the next few weeks.